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Opening Arguments

Gonna head off you troublemakers

Don't know what you're thinking, but I'm pretty sure you're up to no good, so I just might do something about it. Here's Karrem Abdul-Jabbar on the "finger-wagging olympics" surrounding Donald Sterling's racist whines to his mistress/girlfriend.whatever:

Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.

Just a friendly reminder that "vigilance" and "vigilante" are from the same Spanish-out-of-Latin root word. Today's careful watchfulness can be tomorrow's hysterical witch hunt. What "first signs" are we looking for, exactly, and what are they the first signs of, and what are we supposed to do about them to head off racist behavior?

Now we have University of Virginia researcher Dr. Matthew Gerber, who is developing a way to use Twitter to predict crime:

The system Greber has devised is an amalgam of both old and new techniques. Currently, many police departments target hot spots for criminal activity based on actual occurrences of crime. This approach, called kernel density estimation (KDE), involves pairing a historical crime record with a geographic location and using a probability function to calculate the possibility of future crimes occurring in that area. While KDE is a serviceable approach to anticipating crime, it pales in comparison to the dynamism of Twitter’s real-time data stream, according to Dr. Gerber’s research paper “Predicting Crime Using Twitter and Kernel Density Estimation”.

Dr. Greber’s approach is similar to KDE, but deals in the ethereal realm of data and language, not paperwork. The system involves mapping the Twitter environment; much like how police currently map the physical environment with KDE. The big difference is that Greber is looking at what people are talking about in real time, as well as what they do after the fact, and seeing how well they match up. The algorithms look for certain language that is likely to indicate the imminent occurrence of a crime in the area, Greber says. “We might observe people talking about going out, getting drunk, going to bars, sporting events, and so on—we know that these sort of events correlate with crime, and that’s what the models are picking up on.”

Shades of "Minority Report." If they can figure out what we're going to do, they can stop us! But what if we really weren't going to do it.

Back to Abdul-Jabbar. Overall, his piece is pretty good, and he makes a useful distinction:

What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?

He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it. . . .

Deeds are far more important than words, to state the obvious. Let's save our strongest outrage for what people actually do, not what they say or think. That point is underscored by the caution urged by Mark Cuban:

There’s no place for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with,” Cuban said. “But at the same time, that’s a decision I make. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do.”

But come to think about it, Sterling himself cares more about appearance than reality. He doesn't seem to give a damn that his girlfriend is hanging out with African-Americans "and minorities," just that she's letting herself be seen doing it.